Making a living from Mexico City's rubbish

Loading up rubbish in Mexico City

What the inhabitants of Mexico's capital throw away gives a livelihood to the city's army of refuse collectors.

It is barely 06:00 and still bitterly cold on Mexico City's streets, yet Israel Baeza is shivering outside a Starbucks cafe in his underpants.

There is a quick flash of his bright red boxer shorts as he pulls on his overalls, and shoves his own clothes into a plastic bag.

He will need something clean to travel home in, because today is going to be particularly pungent.

Israel and his team are part of the city's small army of rubbish collectors.

'It pays for the potatoes'

Euphemistically called "volunteers", these burly men do not earn a wage for cleaning the streets of the capital, rather they live on what they can recycle from the waste.

Image caption Collectors have to make a living from whatever rubbish they can sell

Israel is just 32, but you would be forgiven for placing him in his late 40s because of the streaks of grey running through his thick, black hair.

Perhaps the years working under the punishing sun have aged him prematurely, but he has a wide, toothy smile and a disarmingly friendly charm about him.

"We make about 10 pesos (50p, 80 cents) a kilo for aluminium," he says meekly. "Paper and cardboard is worth much less."

Altogether they earn around 70 pesos a man on a decent day - that is about £3.50 ($5.50) each.

"It's not much," concedes Israel with unstated humility, "but it's enough to put food on the table."

My translation does not do justice to his Spanish: he actually says that "it pays for the potatoes".

Israel and the men scoop up the bags dumped outside the coffee house, rip them open and begin to sort through them with their bare hands.

Coffee granules, paper napkins and plastic cups have been bundled in together and, with amazing efficiency, they divide the useful from the useless, the valuable from the worthless.

Once they have finished, they ask me to press the button to alert the driver - the only member of the team on a fixed wage - and the truck creeps forward, as we hang off the back or stand atop the piles of fetid rubbish.

They pass through an area of high-class restaurants where empty wine bottles have mercifully been put into different bags from the rotting meat and vegetables.

Wasted food

As the sun slowly begins to rise, the truck pulls into a wealthy residential district, and well-heeled joggers come past in expensive Lycra with their dogs on leashes.

As if from nowhere, other men who inhabit the world of rubbish appear. An older gentleman pushes a heavy cart of oil drums full of bin bags and empty pizza boxes.

I expect Israel to be critical of the people whose rubbish he lives off, but he is a generous sort of soul and only lightly chides them.

"People here are wasteful," he says. "Sometimes we'll find untouched bread and we'll take it home."

Later they find a box of picture frames which they can sell on to a vendor at the city's huge flea market.

Israel's needs are few. "A small wage would be nice," he says. "If there's an accident, we have no-one to turn to."

A few years back, he fell from the truck and broke his wrist. Pulling up his shirt sleeves, he showed me the scar.

"I have plates and metal pins in there," he says.


Rubbish is currently a hot political issue in Mexico City.

At the end of last year, a vast landfill site on the outskirts of the capital called Bordo Poniente was closed by the mayor.

Bordo was one of the biggest open-air rubbish dumps in the world, with around 12,000 tonnes of waste arriving there every day.

An argument is currently raging about where to send the mountains of waste the city produces.

While the politicians argue, it is down to people like Israel to simply gather it all up and recycle what they can along the way.

Twelve hours later, the truck pulls up to one of the many smaller landfills picking up the slack since "el Bordo" was closed.

In the side streets, groups of men are standing around huge containers of paper, glass and plastic. This is where the day's haul is weighed, and Israel and his team receive their paltry payment.

The recycling industry is said to be run by mafia-style groups and you can certainly notice an edge of distrust at our presence.

As if to underline his earlier point, Israel is not with the truck when it finally docks in to unload its putrid cargo.

His daughter has been taken ill and he has had to rush to the hospital but, as his colleagues unload the bales of paper and hundreds of plastic bottles they have accumulated throughout the day, I remember his comment from a little earlier.

"You soon get used to working around rubbish," he told me.

"After a while you don't even notice the smell any more, you adapt to it. This life is normal for us."

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